Matt York / AP

Navajo farmers reject use of water after mine spill

Navajo Nation government has been hesitant to lift restrictions on San Juan River water following toxic spill

One of the largest communities of Navajo farmers along the San Juan River has voted to keep irrigation canals closed for at least a year following a spill of toxic sludge at a Colorado gold mine.

The unanimous vote by more than 100 farmers in Shiprock, New Mexico, guarantees the loss of many crops, said Duane "Chili" Yazzie on Monday. He is president of the Navajo Nation's Shiprock Chapter.

The farmers don't want to risk contaminating the soil for future generations, he said.

"Our position is better safe than sorry," Yazzie said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation EPA said earlier this month that the water is safe for irrigation, based on surface water testing. Other communities off the reservation have cleared the water for drinking, recreation and irrigation.

The Navajo Nation has been hesitant to lift restrictions on using the river water, mostly over concerns about contaminants being stirred up and washed down the river. The Navajo Nation EPA expects to have test results from soil samples later this week.

During an eight-hour “flushing” of silt from the San Juan River on Friday, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye brought a medicine man, a traditional spiritual healer, to bless the water, The Navajo Times newspaper reported

Begaye has asked several farming and ranching communities impacted by the Aug. 5 spill from the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, to weigh in by passing resolutions with an official position.

Shiprock is the only community that has submitted a resolution so far, according to tribal spokesman Mihio Manus.

Begaye, who grew up in a small farmhouse in Shiprock, said he realizes the impact that keeping the water shut off will have on farmers.

"I am furious that the U.S. EPA has placed the Navajo Nation into this position," Begaye said in a news release. "Our farms will not last much longer without water, and our resources are depleting."

The EPA stopped providing agricultural water Friday on the Navajo Nation in an agreement with Begaye. EPA spokesman David Gray said Monday the EPA is evaluating other ways of delivering water to the tribe.

Farmers in Shiprock had rejected water tanks from an EPA contractor after tribal officials complained that one appeared to be dirtied by oil residue. The EPA said over the weekend that it is looking into the complaint and would work with the tribe to remove 13 tanks from the reservation.

Water is being hauled in to top off a tank so residents can continue to have running water in their homes,  said Deenise Becenti with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

In Shiprock, a constant line of vehicles waits to fill huge containers with water. Yazzie said he spent the weekend watering about 500 of his own plants but estimates that other families have thousands that are wilting.

"We're going to struggle to save what we can and what we lose, we'll expect somebody to provide compensation," Yazzie said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture already considers most of the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian territory in the United States, a “food desert,” meaning it is a part of the country where there is little access to fresh, healthy food. Navajo sovereignty activists have told Al Jazeera that bolstering agriculture in the effort to put Navajo-grown foods on tables is key to the nation’s autonomy and preventing capital flight from the reservation. But for many Navajo, any decline in the harvest will mean more costly trips to big-box stores in border towns, where fresh food is still scarce.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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